John Singer Sargent: Nascent Modernist?

Most painters today think of Sargent as a realist; an artist who was capable of painting extraordinarily life-like portraits and beautiful landscapes with ease and fluidity. While both points are true, there is another aspect to Sargent that began to appear after he stopped painting the aristocratic portraits which made his reputation. Sargent began to push the compositions in his work beyond what was normally accepted by the audience of his day. (It is important to note, as we discuss this aspect of his work, that Sargent was well aware of how the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, and Modernists were also challenging the established norms of the time, and likely, he was responding to their efforts in his own inimitable way.)

To put it simply, in the post-portrait period of his career, Sargent often consciously manipulated and violated many of the established rules and formulas of painting to create a compositional problem he could resolve in a novel manner.

Home Fields

“Home Fields”,
1885 by Sargent
29″ x 38″
Detroit Art Institute

This is one of my favorite paintings by Sargent. It isn’t one of his better known works, but it is a fine example for us to analyze here. Sargent painted Home Fields when he staying at Broadway, a quiet village in the Cotswolds of England while recovering from a disastrous rejection of his portrait of Madam X in Paris. While there, it is possible all the vitriolic furor that erupted over his outrageous portrait encouraged him to reflect upon painting for himself first, and others second. With that context being understood, analyzing the composition of Home Fields becomes more interesting because it suggests something about Sargent that few people appreciate. Sargent was a experimental formalist, who, if he had been born fifty years later, might have felt perfectly at home working as an Abstract Expressionist during the mid-20th Century. Yes, this is a big assertion to make, but signs of that kind of thinking are present in this painting and others. When Sargent pursued his own work for his own ends, via the landscape, he liked to cloak his unusual compositions with a power of descriptive might, perhaps to make the odd experiments more palatable to the public, or simply because he could. However, if we strip away the narrative elements and detail we are left with a fascinating interplay between abstract shapes, directional lines, and the physicality of his paint.

But, before I go further please allow me a moment of self-indulgence…

I first encountered Home Fields in 1983 as an undergrad at in art school. I stumbled across it in a monograph being sold in a museum shop. (I starved for a week to buy that book, hoping it would still be there when I came back for it.) I didn’t know much about Sargent then, as few people did. He wasn’t included in my history classes and when I showed Sargent to my painting instructor he dismissed the work as being manneristic. I struggled to accept what I was told and eventually decided it was best not to bring Sargent up in his studio again. This was at a time when the art world was beginning to turn back to more academic ways of working, and the primacy of Modernism was being reassessed.

Sargent’s Home Fields converted me into a plein air painter before I ever set an easel up outside. The fresh and direct handling of paint, the keen observations of light, and the outrageous graphic composition triggered something deep within me. I had been studying 20th century art that semester and Home Fields, and Sargent, seemed to bridge the gap between the traditional and the modern. I stared at that reproduction for weeks before finally seeing something I had missed. Sargent had literally put himself into the painting. (Do you see him?) Yet I did not read anything that pointed to that fact for years afterwards.

But back to Home Fields…Does it really imply Sargent was a nascent Modernist?

In a word, yes. The underlying force that gave rise to Modernism can be summarized by two things; an artist’s desire to be recognized as a member of the avant-garde, and the influential opinions of the 20th century art critic Clement Greenberg, a man who achieved cultural authority thirty years after Sargent’s death.

So what is, or was, the Avant-Garde? By itself, it is a fairly self-explanatory term since it loosely translates to ‘the vanguard of the main troops’. Applied to painting, it was used to identify any artist or movement that led the way from something old to something new. During the 1950s Greenberg rose to prominence by emphatically arguing the most pressing concern of the Avant-Garde was ‘flatness’ and ‘the dissolution of form’, an obvious appeal to break away from the timeline of European Art and setting up something uniquely American in its place. Greenberg was largely successful in his goals, turning US academic painting towards his interpretation of art, and his influence and pressure was felt by any artist who wished to be considered relevant. Up to that point, for over four hundred years, one of the most fundamental aspects to painting had been about creating the illusion of form and space behind the picture plane. But late-stage Modernism demanded the painter now relinquish the illusion of form and depth and place everything ON the picture plane. Nothing into. Nothing out of. Make it flat. Make it abstract.

(Side Note: I’m sharing this background in the hope it will encourage you to consider how you fit into the traditions we all love. Why? Because knowing this kind of stuff can guide you to a deeper, more meaningful destination.)

rectangular shapes

Now, note the rectangular shapes that represent the shed on the far right.

Sargent presented us with a flat front face. This aligns the shed with the front of the picture plane. (Perhaps I should explain what the picture plane is. You can think of it as the actual surface you paint on, the canvas or panel. In a traditional composition the artist treats the picture plane as a piece of glass set into a window frame, through which you can see the world. Whatever the subject might be, it would be placed behind, or rarely in some circumstances, in front of the picture plane. (Sometimes, using extreme foreshortening, Caravaggio would try to the viewer to believe parts of his figures were projecting out in front of the frame in 3-D. So the idea of the picture plane is not a recent concept.) With late-stage Modernism, the goal was to have everything set ON the picture plane – neither behind nor in front.)

However, there are more things to consider than the shed. Sargent deliberately placed the shed so that the right side abuts against the right side of the painting. That placement is unusual. It attaches the shed to the edge of the painting and inhibits our ability to visually push it back. As a result that shed becomes a foil to everything else Sargent invests into his composition.

Next, look at the row of trees and distant hills Sargent has arranged along the horizon line. (The yellow lines.) They are dark and soft and vary in size. But when massed together with similar values they create a strong horizontal force that spans the picture plane. Plus, the base of the trees and hills have been arranged to be in-line with the shed, again further flattening the picture plane. Taken together, the virtual horizon line, the shed, and the trees and hills contradict the illusion of deep space.

examine the diagonals

But wait, now let’s examine the diagonals Sargent introduced into the painting.

Take a moment to appreciate how he designs with whatever falls within his view. One set of diagonals make their appearance as cast shadows (blue lines). Following the principles of classical Renaissance perspective those shadows correctly converge towards a common point along the virtual horizon line. Don’t let any slight variance in the convergence confuse you. This was a quickly executed painting and I don’t think Sargent was overly concerned about maintaining mathematical precision. Sargent used this convergence to generate a powerful visual push into the picture plane – creating what many of us today call a ‘lead-in’ – and interestingly, those diagonals point us away from the shed. (Convergence is a time-honored way to direct the eye towards a specific area of a painting.) Due to Sargent’s amazing ability to capture light, shadow, and color, we can feel the exact time and position of the sun. It is behind us. It is late fall or winter. It is the end of the day.

And even more diagonals

And even more diagonals

And even more diagonals… To design with the shadows would have been enough for most painters, but not for Sargent. He chose to include another diagonal movement within his view: that rambling fence (red lines). The fence itself echoes what the shadows are doing, but the figure/ground relationship has been inverted as a counter movement. (The fence is light against dark and the shadows are dark against light. Plus, the fence is a fixed object and the shadows are ephemeral and remain in constant movement.) The fence provides a similar repeating motif to the shadow, yet is different. Just like the shadows, the fence moves diagonally into space. But this time the fence points us towards the shed, and in doing so, effectively balances out the shadows that are pointing us to the left. When combined, the fence and shadows form a downward “V” which points directly to the feet of Sargent – and thus our feet as well. (So perhaps now you realize how Sargent inserted himself into this painting, using his own shadow, and perhaps you can better appreciate how this turns you, the viewer, into Sargent himself. We are seeing what Sargent saw, from exactly where he saw it – another nod to classical Renaissance perspective, when the fixed position of the painter’s eye becomes our own.)

subtler diagonals

But there are even more, subtler diagonals to consider

But there are even more, subtler diagonals to consider… When Sargent included those wispy trees in the middle ground he threw up another barrier to deep space. Yet he also uses the base of each of those trees (the pink line) to provide a series of stepping stones that lead us to the shed again. He is simultaneously encouraging our eye to travel into the picture plane again, and impeding our path to get there.
Simplified shapes and contours

Simplified shapes and contours

And finally, as if anyone could run out of things to say about this painting… There are additional simplified shapes and contours created by various elements in this painting to consider. Shapes that continue to line up in such a way to lead us relentlessly back to the shed. That d*mn shed! I can’t think of a single classical painter who would have put it there – certainly not one who lived and worked before the advent of Modernism. Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Poussin, Rembrandt, Fragonard, Watteau, Reynolds, and the rest of the usual suspects would never have put an orange rectangle against the side of their painting and then expended so much effort trying to push it back into space with all these diagonals. (And it bears repeating, Home Fields was not an anomaly for Sargent.) Traditional painters were far more likely to place their point of focus, like a building, towards the middle of their painting, about one third up from the bottom, and then lead our eye up to, and around the area in a circular fashion. The old masters would never have done something so quirky as to place a building against the edge of the canvas. They would have considered that a nutty thing to do, or worse, a terrible error of judgement.

Arguably, how much of the composition in Home Fields was calculated vs how much of it sprang forth directly out of Sargent’s intuition is anyone’s guess, especially since he left few personal insights into his methods or technique. But the obvious things he did to flatten this painting, and the diagonals he introduced to penetrate or contrast that flatness are there for everyone to see. If Home Fields was just an aberration we could dismiss it as a happy collision between a genius and an unusual subject. But after years of studying Sargent’s oeuvre, I think not. Everything in this painting feels calculated, and if you look at it long enough you may come to the same conclusion I have – that Sargent intentionally set up tricky compositional problems and then enjoyed finding novel ways to resolve them. In other words, Sargent experimented with some abstract ideas that would not be explored in greater detail until after WWII, when Abstract painters such as Kline, DeKooning, Pollock, Motherwell, Still, Nevelson, and others took the stage.

Upcoming OPA Events

OPA Summer 2021 Online Showcase OPA Summer 2021 Online Showcase
The Summer 2021 Online Showcase is from June 1 - August 15, 2021 and will be open to Associate members only. Learn More!
2021 National Convention & Wet Paint Competition 2021 National Convention & Wet Paint Competition
The 2021 National Convention & Wet Paint Competition will take place in Santa Fe, New Mexico, from August 24 - 29, 2021. Learn More!
Eastern Regional Exhibition 2021 Eastern Regional Exhibition
The Eastern Regional Exhibition will be hosted by the ArtCenter Manatee, located in Bradenton, Florida, September 28 through October 22, 2021. Learn More!
OPA Fall 2021 Online Showcase OPA Fall 2021 Online Showcase
The Fall 2021 Online Showcase is from October 1 - December 15, 2021 and will be open to Signature and Associate members only. Learn More!
Western Regional Exhibition 2021 Western Regional Exhibition
The Western Regional Exhibition will be held October 15 through November 27, 2021 at the Mary R. Koch Arts Center (Mark Arts), located in Wichita, Kansas. More details to be announced as they become available. Learn More!